The Denver Autism Wheel

Sometimes, we’re the ones who make no sense

Posted on: July 12, 2010

If you think about it, some of our social behaviors (handshakes and small talk, for example) don’t make a lot of sense from the outside. I give you the handshake: I don’t know you, so I put out my right hand, thumb up, toward you at about waist level. If I put out my left hand, I have to explain to you why I’m not putting out my right hand. I might have to apologize for it, too. If I extend my hand too high or too low, you step back and look affronted, and I have to apologize for that as well. I tell you my name. You extend your right hand, also thumb up, toward my extended hand. If you put out your left hand, you have to explain to me why you’re not putting out your right hand. You might have to apologize for it, too. You tell me your name. We grab hands firmly palm to palm (not knuckle-breakingly, but not wet fish-like, either, not by the arm, but not by the fingers, either…) and move them quickly up and down 2 or 3 times. We let go. Now that we’ve done that, we can make eye contact, smile and say “hi” to each other the next time we meet. Shrug. OK.

Somehow, society at large decided that certain things are normal, and other things are not. Socially acceptable behavior doesn’t include most of the regular habits of 2-year-olds. Then again, one of those habits is squealing with joy when you see someone you haven’t seen in a while…that doesn’t sound so bad. We could all benefit from expressing (and being the object of) joy once in a while, yes?

How about lying? I don’t think any parent would recommend that their child tell lies, but I think we all agree that we have much more patience when it comes to listening to adults lying. Somehow, those adults didn’t learn the childhood lesson that lying will be discovered and punished, and could end up hurting people or possessions in the process (witness The Boy Who Cried “Wolf”).

What about expressing pleasure or pain? When Chris was 4, he knelt down on the landscape edging between gravel and lawn in our back yard and sliced his knee open. It must have hurt; it certainly bled quite a bit. But he didn’t cry out or come to me, gasping in pain to fix it. Nope. He came inside, sat down on the floor and started playing with other toys. It was only when he realized his knee was staining the carpet that he turned around and asked me for a bandage. Clutching chest: OMG.

It doesn’t mean his knee didn’t hurt; it doesn’t mean he felt pain differently from his NT brother. In this case, I think it meant that he didn’t associate the injury with a need to explain it to somebody else. He knew what happened and assumed that everybody else in the house did, too. If there was a problem, we’d know it and do something about it. If we didn’t do anything about it, maybe it wasn’t that big a deal after all.

The same thing used to happen when I’d ask him how his day went at school. He’d give me a blank look. Not even a “Fine, Mom,” or a grunt. He was actually confused by the question, and it took me a long time to realize that he assumed that everyone else experienced what he experienced. My asking him about his day was a completely absurd question as far as he was concerned because if he saw it, I did, too. He and I didn’t have separate sensory experiences, as he perceived it. If he was experiencing the sensory input (sights, sounds, smells, interactions), I was, too.

I think it was a bit of a surprise to him to learn that we were actually two separate people. I masked his deficit in verbal communication for a long time by letting him get away with pointing and making noises. I could figure out what he needed from that. We were at home together all day, and I knew him really well. I provided what he needed without a lot of labor on his part, so how was he supposed to know we weren’t somehow the same being in 2 bodies, and one was just taller and more coordinated? I think the same thing happened when he hurt his knee: I wasn’t giving any indication of pain, so why should he? In his mind, I knew as well as he did that he’d hurt himself…even though I didn’t (of course) until I saw his knee bleeding.

On the other hand, Chris doesn’t lie. He tries to sometimes (when he’s pretty sure he’s in trouble for something and really doesn’t want to be), but he isn’t very good at it. Lying well requires a certain social acumen which he does not possess. For example: lying requires knowing who’s present for the telling of the lie and remembering who was present when the incident in question occurred. It also requires knowing what’s plausible in a given situation and what’s incredible. Short term memory deficits make it difficult to recall the exact circumstances and sequence of an event. The same thing makes it difficult to judge the plausibility of a made-up chain of events. So: he’s not a good liar. When he tries it, he gets caught in it. So most of the time, he doesn’t lie. It’s just safer than trying to remember who was there, what he lied about, and who he has to keep snowing. Wow: a genetic predisposition toward integrity. Couldn’t we all benefit from that?

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